Day One – Desentization.

Today was the first day of formal training of the fabulous Pony Sue.  As expected, there were problems.

When training a horse, expect problems.  Problems should never be considered obstacles, but instead opportunities.  Each time a horse behaves badly, they are giving you the opportunity to change the issues now – instead of suffer from it later.

Pony Sue – well let’s just say he was packed full of …opportunities today!  That’s right – I meant to type “opportunities”, not something else.

Today’s important concepts:

Desensitization:  causing a horse to be less sensitive to objects or happenings which might bother them.  In layman’s terms, removing the threat of the monster that lurks behind every plastic garbage bag, running dog, or shadow just waiting to eat your horse up like a duck eats a June bug.

Sensitization:  causing a horse to be more sensitive to cues and other happenings or objects around them.  In layman’s terms: adjusting the breaks, steering, and airbags of a horse.

Left-horse-right-horse:   in humans, the left and right brain (the feeling and reasoning sides) are connected by a large and complex section of the brain called the corpus callosum.  In horses, there’s a scrawny little ineffective connection.  In short, the human corpus callosum is like high-speed internet while the horse version is like smoke signals.  On a windy day.  At night. You get the picture.

In humans, this great communication system means that you can learn to wave with your right hand and your left hand can figure it out pretty easily and with some practice.  In horses, this lack of communication means that when you teach the horse something on their right (usually stronger) side, the left side was taking a nap, dreaming of oats, and generally not paying attention in class.

When teaching a horse anything, think of it as being two horses:  the left-horse and the right-horse.  Anything you teach to one of these horses must be taught to the other as if it has no clue – because it really has NO clue.

Pressure and release:  when training any horse, the concepts of pressure and release are very important.  You put pressure on a horse with your eyes (known as “the stink eye” ), your body (known by cowboys as “bowing up”, or by others as “puffing up”), with the rope (known as swishing the rope, swinging the rope, or tapping or popping with the rope), or with your arms (known as waving them quite like a windmill or perhaps a crazy person, hoping your neighbors don’t drive by just that moment).

You put pressure on a horse to get them to move.  You take the pressure off, release it, to stop movement or to reward them for doing what you wanted when you put on the pressure.

Releasing pressure means looking like you really don’t care about anything.  Think of this as being like 12-year-old daughter’s reaction to your lecture on school:  no making eye contact, don’t seem to know or care that the horse exists, and remain in your own immortal and confident little world.  Get the picture?

Goal: 

Push as many of Pony Sue’s major hot buttons as possible without resulting in a trip to the hospital because of bruised or broken shins.  Let’s face it – it’s not like he can kick or bite any higher than a couple of feet off of the ground.

Teach Pony Sue that SpookyPonyEatingMonstersTM really aren’t that bad, and that when I touch his flanks the correct response is not kicking the perfect image of the underside of his hoof in my forehead.

Teach Pony Sue that when I want him to stand still, he also really wants to stand still rather than run in a circle around me a million-gazillion times.  In short: playing like you’re a pony statue is gooooood.

Methods:

On a loose lead, use the lead rope and my hands to touch, approach, or tap areas to which he is sensitive.  In other words, pester him constructively.

Equipment: 

  • One too-large nylon traditional halter (remind me to remedy that),
  •  One ten-foot long, heavy nylon lead,
  • One small, surly, smoky-palomino mini horse, and
  • Proper footwear – aka boots. No tennis shoes for groundwork, please.  Not unless you play to donate your toes to the Institute for Studying Pancake-shaped Tootsies. Thank you.

So today Pony Sue was in a pretty good mood when I took him out of the pasture.  It was nap time, as afternoons are for most horses. When I want to teach a horse to do groundwork which results in them being quiet, I do sometimes purposefully pick nap time when they’re a little more laid back.  Today was one of those days.  Also – it’s easier to sneak up on a napping Pony Sue than it is one that is running around like a pony on speed.

PS easily took the halter and lead and was led away from the other horses – who wanted absolutely nothing to do with any of the training.  I led him to an area of flat ground and few distractions for this first day of work; distractions can be added later, like salt and pepper to a good stew, for more learning.  I figured I had enough spice today to deal with as it was.

My first goal today was getting Pony Sue to stand still.  Both of him:  Pony-Sue-Right, and Pony-Sue-Left.  Pony Sue is relatively good on a lead.  As with any horse, I gave Pony Sue a good deal of slack in the lead.  For a large horse, this would be an arm’s length of rope.  For this little guy, it was just slightly less.

Helpful hint:  giving horses room to make a mistake allows them to learn and grow, just as it does humans.  This means physically as well as mentally.

Giving Pony Sue a lot of slack meant that I was not micro-managing this little horse.  Horses, when micro-managed, react to it quite like humans do: with resentment.  I wanted to allow Pony Sue to do all the bad things he might do when I’m not paying attention so that I could shape these bad behaviors into good ones.

Pony Sue did indeed wander around a bit.  When he crowded me but standing at the right place (at my shoulder) I simply reached the end of my lead around my back with my right hand and swished it at his side to tell him “hey – you’re in my space.  If my tail reaches you, you are too close.”  In this case, my tail was the lead rope.

There is no anger involved in this, NBD = No Big Deal.

NBD is an important concept to use around horses, people, children, and other animals.  Making a Big Deal out of a Little Deal is a lot of work.  As I age (yes, I’m aging – no snickering out there)  I have learned that as a human I am essentially lazy.  As it so happens, so are horses!  Embrace their laziness – and yours – by not making  more work for yourself than is necessary.

Back to Pony Sue.  Pony Sue was not much of a crowder today.  Instead, he wanted to push ahead of me.  When this happened, I turned around and wiggled the rope a bit (not wildly) so that he was startled and took 2 steps back.  When he did, I turned around like it was NBD.

Most of your time leading a horse should be in NBD mode.  Expect good things and allow them to happen.  Walk as if your horse is going to follow you; look in the distance to where you’re going knowing full well you will end up there; walk with the type of purpose and energy and drive you would like to be known as having.  You will be surprised how often if you do this – it works!

So I did that with Pony Sue, who usually is a bit of a goofball on a lead – and it worked.  Other than correcting his forwardness, he did it much less than often because I *pretended* to be the world’s greatest cowgirl.  He apparently believed me.  You’d be surprised how gullible horses are.

I didn’t stop to turn and stare at him.  Other than his vanity, he doesn’t like that – nor does your horse.

Don’t stare at your horse unless you want to make a point; they get paranoid.  Just assume that they’re going to see your brilliance and do as you wish if you guide them correctly.

I was careful today to show Pony Sue with my right, leading hand exactly where I wanted him to go.

Note: I didn’t DRAG him there – I pointed him there.  With the lead in my right hand, I extended my arm at length to use it as a pointer of where I wanted him to go.  I kept one bite or loop of lead in that right hand and let the tail of the rope rest in my left hand (ready to “swish” as needed).

Safety rules:  Always be certain to fold the rope into your hand, not allowing it to ever wrap around your hand, arm, finger, or anything else.  Arms/fingers/hands are useful; keep yours intact by keeping ropes from looping around them.

I found that by showing Pony Sue where I wanted him to go, he went there.  It is possible that I haven’t been being clear with my cues before, leading to general confusion and something like a badly choreographed pony-human dance.

When Pony Sue would stop, I would rub his neck for being good.  Then we would just stand there.  Horses are lazy – let them have a break.  If you see them sigh or chew like they’re eating, that means “hey this instruction sunk into my little brain – on this side anyway – and I’m relaxed.  I get it.”  That means you got through to them. When Pony Sue stopped and just stood there, I rubbed, he chewed, we were all happy.  I would walk a few steps and then stop him, correct his position only if necessary, and then just stand there.  Don’t belabor it – just do this til you get a few successful tries and then go on to something else.

The “something else” was desensitizing Pony Sue to the rope.  Turning towards Pony Sue in a relaxed manner (one leg slightly bent, relaxed in body), I took the end of the rope and tossed it over his back.  Of course he jumped then started to walk circles.

Rather than stopping and going “Oh dear – did I scare the little horse?  Let me soothe you”, I kept throwing the rope in a gentle and relaxed way onto his back.  Eventually he slowed down a little.  In this case, I stopped throwing the rope for just a moment when he slowed down.

Sometimes a partial success is exactly want you want.  In fact, most times any effort is rewarded by a release of pressure.  In this case, I stopped tossing that darned rope at him.

To make sure he would stand, however, I started up again.  He started walking and eventually stopped.  The exact moment that Pony Sue stopped walking, I instantly forgot the rope and rubbed Pony Sue gently in a soothing and positive voice telling him that he was good.  He looked at me like “That’s what you wanted?” and licked his lips. Success.

When I resumed tossing the rope onto him, he took a few steps but stopped more quickly.  Released pressure, a gentle neck rub, and a break – all a pony needs except 50 pounds of apples for Christmas thankyouverymuch.

Now on to Right-Pony-Sue.   The right horse in Pony Sue apparently is a little more dense, but caught on after a few tries and was glad to stand still and sigh.

We used the same procedure on Pony Sue’s flank.  Toss the rope at it (being sure to stand well away from him).  When he stopped flinching or moving, I stopped tossing.  Repeat with the opposite horse, then take a break.

Here is where I think it is important to mention about dangerous actions.

Dangerous actions, the unforgivable actions, are biting, kicking, nipping, threatening in any manner, and certainly carrying out any of those threats. 

Pony Sue was smart enough to only raise his back leg once on the leg desensitization in the back.  He was NOT so smart on the front legs and my handling them.

When I ran my hand down Pony Sue’s leg,  he predictably picked it up and put it down so quick that you could blink and miss it.  I repeated, wanting him to leave his leg on the ground unless I asked for it.  After about four times, he nipped at me.

The “three second rule” came into play.  During the three second period, I ‘killed’ Pony Sue.

End of Blog.

(Just kidding.)

I don’t really kill Pony Sue, or hurt him, but it would be nice if he thought I was serious enough to do just that.  Instead, I made him back away from me, using my rope to move him very quickly back and away from me in a very aggressive way.  In his case, I didn’t have to pop him – but you would think I did.

During the three second rule, you have three seconds immediately after a horse performs or truly threatens a dangerous, unforgivable action to make them think you are going to kill them.  Thank you John Lyons for this concept.  You are never to strike the horse in the face, but using your rope on them within reason on their body is fine – and encouraged. Certainly making them move, move, move is a must.  Once three seconds are over, remember to go back to NBD mode.

Once three seconds was over, I turned away from him and acted like I had amnesia, then turned towards him and soothingly ran my hand down his neck.  “Well hi there Pony Sue – how long have you been standing there?”

He thought I was crazy.

He also was way less enthusiastic on bite-attempt-number-two.   That being said, I was just as enthusiastic on the killing as the first time and he was just as surprised.  Again – amnesia and release of pressure.

I took a minute or two to go a step backwards and run my hands on Pony Sue, toss the rope at him very casually, and do things he could do easily.  Then back to the leg.

I ran my hand down it and he left it there and just barely looked at me.

He got itched in his favorite spot, gentle neck stroking, and a very calm yet positive voice telling him he really was a very bright boy and I’m glad that I found him.

This was very effective with him, really so effective that I was even surprised.  The right Pony Sue was much better – no biting, no pinned ears, but you could see in his eye that he thought about it.

After this big lesson – and success – I went back to some of the easier points of the day.

Always end on a good, easy note.

I wanted to make sure that what Pony Sue remembered, his last impression, was “oh my – I’m such a smart boy and I so easily get rewards – I can’t wait to do this again!”  When he had performed his last miracle, taken his last deep breath of a sigh, and thought we would do something else – I simply undid his halter and walked backwards.  He was happy and completely relaxed, head about 4 inches from the ground, no tense muscles – and so was I.  Um, except my head was much higher off of the ground.

I feel that despite his stubbornness, we were able to take the first chunk out of our major issues.  Of course, horses should have these lessons repeated.  My plan is to do the same over the next 3 days – no days off in between so that the lesson sinks in.

The results:

My entire lesson was no more than 30 minutes and achieved a great deal.  Remember, achieving only one lesson in a lesson is a good thing.  Sometimes just maintaining is a good thing – as long as you end on a good note.  Don’t be afraid to go backwards a little; I wasn’t, nor should you be afraid.

Day one is over, and I’m ready for day 2 – and so is my little munchkin, Pony Sue.

How do you turn a 36″ cranky mini horse into My Little Pony?

Other than spray painting Pony Sue pink, having a 3 foot long weave put in, and sprinkling him with sparkles… the only thing I could come up with to answer this question is to train the little rascal.

Generally Pony Sue is a good-natured fellow.  Lord knows he’s the first in line to greet you if you have anything slightly resembling food in your hand.  He won my heart when we found him at a Houston feed store, staring at us, beckoning us to “come pet the pretty smokey palomino pony” with his big brown eyes sparkling full of sweetness and promise.

He didn’t disappoint.

Pony Sue is indeed very fun to pet (most of the time), will follow you around like a puppy (often enough), and will even greet you with a shrill whinny as you walk up.  He knows NO strangers.  He also knows no fear. Knowing one heck of a good personality in a horse when presented one, I (henceforth known as The Sucker) bought him.  I led him through a throng of cars, people, and children to my trailer expecting him to bolt, jump around, and be overwhelmed.  Instead, he strutted, let everyone pet him, and jumped right into the trailer as if it were filled with applies the moment I opened the door.

Oh yeah – this is a great little guy!

That being said, Pony Sue also has earned his name (see “A Boy Named Sue” lyrics by Johnny Cash) in his attitude.  With anything larger than him (which consists of 99% of everything on earth minus ants and chihuahuas), he feels he has to bluster, paw, prance, and generally act like a little Napoleon.  While this is amusing, it’s not necessarily safe – especially considering he was purchased “for Miss L”.

(Note to readers:  “for Miss L”  should be interpreted as “using someone else’s tiny daughter as an excuse to buy the pony of The Sucker’s dreams”.   Glad we got that straight!)

So here I am – one cute toddler with no fear and a rather tall and sometimes menacing father on one hand, a mini-horse with the personality of a Goliath on the other hand.  So begins the training adventure.

The issues that Pony Sue has are as follows:

  • Aforementioned lack of fear, which shows itself in a savvy for walking into the personal space of any creature, even the 16.2 hand-high horse, no matter how much biting, kicking, screaming, rope-throwing, or chaos ensues.  Repeatedly.  By repeatedly I mean “get beat up now – return in 38 seconds for more”.
  • A very touchy flank area that, when touched, results in the fast-and-furious flying of the tiniest little hooves you’ve ever seen.
  • A lack of ground manners when being led – which generally results in the human being led by Pony Sue.
  • An unknown history of riding.  He was said to have been “ridden easily by children”.   That being said, in the horse world a “dead broke” horse usually means “you’ll go broke and probably be dead by the time you finish training them”, and “a children’s horse” means “only fearless children have the guts to go within 3 feet of them”, etc.  You get my drift.  I have NO real idea of this pony’s saddle manners.  Given that flank issue… yeah, we’ll just not go there.  I’m going to assume he has a potential career as the tiniest rodeo bronc known to mankind – and hopefully be pleasantly surprised to find I’m quite wrong.
  • A lovely gift for picking up his front hooves the second you ask for them – and putting them down just as quickly.
  • A penchant for nipping you when you approach an area on his body that he doesn’t like having approached.
  • No regard for whether or not a human (particularly The Sucker) is standing in his way when he decides to lash out in fury at the other horses.

To his credit, Pony Sue also has the following traits:

  • Amazing intelligence evidenced by his large, kind eye, his ability to learn anything quickly (including how to look extra-cute at sale time in order to hook-line-and-sinker The Sucker, the knowledge of how to know the INSTANT The Sucker opens up the feed door right by the alfalfa, and exactly which hand in which you might be holding a treat).
  • Good conformation for a riding horse, including extraordinary feet, a beautiful gate for such a shorty, and good balance of length of neck to shortness of back.
  • Some manners when haltered, the ability to load in a trailer like a dream, and the ability to pick up his feet.
  • A true people-seeking personality.

The methods I will be using to polish up Pony Sue are a mish-mash of different techniques that can be all included in the broadly-brushed category called Natural Horsemanship.  Some people will gloss it over and call it “Indian methods” (which always makes me snicker a bit).  Others go the other direction, equal gloss, and call it “cowboy training”. Others hug a tree and call it “natural horsemanship”.  Really – this stuff has been around and used by people for ages, anyone who realized that 1000 pounds of horse eventually gets tired of being bullied around and needs a better reason to let humans (aka predators) jump on their back and make them work when there’s grazing, sleeping, and making colts to be done instead.

I find that a lot of my methods match those of Clinton Anderson and John Lyons. I do admit that I have adapted some of their methods or used them to inform some of my own. That being said, I fully believe that each person should find a path that truly suits their own goals and their horse’s success without putting all the proverbial eggs in one basket.  Ray Hunt is really the father of what most people call “natural” methods these days, as were the Native Americans, but again – many of these were discovered when I was a small 9-year-old girl with a 4 year old too-smart cowwy mare and too much time on my hands in the summer time.  These methods have been tried by myself and others time and time again, proven to build a relationship with a horse rather than intimidate them by fear into doing what you want of them.

As I often say, a horse trained in fear will leave its owner high and dry when something scarier comes along. I believe in gaining the respect of my horse in other ways so that when they’re afraid of the world, you’re there as their Knight In Shining Armor to save them – and they to save you!

I welcome any and all comments provided in a rational and constructive manner.  All others will be deleted (and secretly mocked).  Did I type that out loud?  Still – I really would like to hear your experiences, your thoughts, and your questions.  I also welcome all subscriptions and mentions in facebook,  and all the other annoying little medias that I have learned I cannot live without!  (How did that happen, anyway?)

Thank you again for taking the time to read this blog which will be updated as Pony Sue is updated!

Nathalie (aka The Sucker)

Introduction to “The Gentrification of Pony Sue”.

I have started a new journey and invite you all to come along: the training of Pony Sue, my cantankerous 36″ tall mini horse gelding.  Nothing done with Pony Sue is ever boring, so this should be fun.  I hope you all enjoy as “P-Sue” and I work towards making him a gentleman and mount worth of the lovely Miss L.

You can find the link at the top of the page, The Gentrification of Pony Sue.  Enjoy!

 

These are a few of my favorite things….

Ok forgive me the corny song-like title, but these really are a few of my favorite tools when working with horses.  I can’t help but share the list with you because there are so many clinicians and other horsemen out there who have a vested interest in horse gear (and your dollars) that sometimes it is difficult to know which gear items are really indispensable and which are just gimmicks.

In this article I will let you know which items I think are just the best and why I feel so strongly about them.  Allow my trial-and-errors (more so the latter) to help you avoid unnecessary costly equipment.

The Rope Halter.

You’ve all seen them if you’re a die-hard equipment addict like I am. These are usually a thin rope halter that is tied in various knots, otherwise known as a “cowboy halter”.  I have mixed feelings about these halters.  They serve a great purpose sometimes, and there are other times in which I avoid them at all costs.

The purpose:  The purpose of a rope halter is to apply pressure to the points of a horse’s head that are most sensitive when needed, but remove that pressure when not needed.  The pressure points are the bridge of the nose and the poll (top of the head) of the horse.  Sometimes these halters will have additional knots on the nose area, generally two, or rawhide to increase effectiveness.

When to use them:  these halters can be indispensable when doing ground training in a horse, or as a replacement for a hackamore or bitless bridle for your horse.  These halters should always be used when the horse is supervised.

When not to use them:  These halters should never be used for turnout, for trailering, or without the horse being supervised. These halters should never be used in a stall.  The reason they are not used in these situations is that – unlike a traditional halter – they will not break if the horse gets caught in one or sets back.

What to look for in a rope halter:  Rope halters should be of stiff and preferably rather heavy material.  The stiffness allows them to sit off of the pressure points when not being used.  The heaviness allows for a better “feel”, allowing the horse to feel them moving before you necessarily give a cue.  Most of these halters tie where traditional halters have buckles.  Westfall makes one that has a buckle for your ease; otherwise you tie a knot.

Why use this halter rather than traditional?  A traditional halter allows a horse to become more desensitized to the pressure areas.  When training, this means that they can become less sensitive to your cues.  Traditional halters have a wider strap meaning that any pressure put on those straps is distributed over a larger area and diffused.  While this is great for trailering and turnout, this is not as effective during training and especially when used as a bitless bridle.

Do the clinician halters really work better?  While it’s true that many clinician halters have well-thought-out points, most of them are very highly priced and not necessarily that much better.  The key is in the lead rope; clinician leads are often better, but not the halter.  With less expense it’s possible to buy a very good lead while not spending 50 dollars on the halter itself.

The Traditional Halter

This halter is the one with which most of us grew up:  the nylon, leather, or biothane halter made with generally 3/4 – 1″ straps attached by buckles and other metal hardware.  This halter buckles at least at the poll, sometimes at the chin, and sometimes under the throatlatch.

The purpose:  the purpose of a traditional halter is to contain a horse while being tied, turned out (if there is a safety strap that will break), or while trailering.  This halter is best used with a horse who has a good “feel” and is very well behaved.  This is the only halter to use during turnout or trailering, in my opinion, because it is wide, less likely to burn the horse’s head if a horse sets back or is caught, and can break if it has a leather tab for safe turn out.

I still do not believe in using any halters in a stable situation; if one must be used, it should be a “turn out” traditional halter.

These halters are easy to pad for trailering, easy to groom around if you have a throatlatch snap, and easy to apply.  I feel that it is best to buy the moderately expensive halter with at least 2 plies rather than the foreign-made one-ply inexpensive nylon halters.

A leather traditional halter can last a lifetime if cleaned and oiled regularly and will feel awesome to the horse’s head.  (These also make great gifts to your horsey friends – or yourself!)

When not to use them:  traditional halters as less effective than rope halters as a bitless bridle or for training for the reasons explained above.

The “Carrot Stick”

Ahhhh the “Carrot Stick”.  This is a name given to a very specific type of stick that was coined, I believe, by Pat Parelli.  The carrot stick is a training stick that is approximately 4 feet long, stiff, with a loop of leather on the end through which a string, bag, or rag can be threaded.

How does the carrot stick differ from other whips and crops?  The carrot stick is more stiff than dressage whips, buggy whips, and other similarly long whips.  While a string can be applied similarly to a lunge whip, this stick doesn’t need the string.  The carrot stick is more flexible in use with the ability to attach other aids to its end.

Why use the other aids?  The string, bag, and rags which can be used with a carrot stick make it – in my opinion – an indispensable part of any stable.  Desensitizing a horse to different, scary stimuli is an important aspect of creating a super-safe and happy, confident horse.  Using a rag, plastic bag, balloon, or string at the end of a carrot stick help you to get your horse used to various items while still being far enough from their range of kicking to be safe.

Why does the carrot stick work when whips do not?  Unlike other crops and whips, the stiffness of the carrot stick allow it to be used as an extension of your arm for very specific touch without the wobbly effect that other aids have.  You can use this stick to press into your horse for a leg-like cue, to tap specifically to a certain point on the horse or ground to ask them to move, and it doesn’t sag with the application of items to its end.

Buying a carrot stick for less.  While it is admirable to support the clinician of your  choice by buying a carrot or training stick from them, if you cannot afford it you do not have to spend more.  These sticks are not found through less-expensive companies, even under $20 – and in colors that suit your personality.  For example, horse.com has a “clinician stick training whip” for $15.  I have that same stick and find it to be very handy, sturdy, and perfectly capable of doing anything I need of it.  Plus – it’s pink!  🙂

The Perfect Lead Rope

Ahhhh the lead rope.  Often not given the place of importance it should have in a horse owner’s eyes, this one piece of equipment is the line of communication between you and your horse.  As such, it should be given more weight – literally.

Which lead rope to choose:  When choosing the perfect lead rope, one should choose a rope that has good “feel”.  By “feel”, I mean qualities that allow the horse to feel that you are about to give it a command so that your horse can choose to act immediately rather than you having to exaggerate your cues.  Usually this means a good, heavy weight.  The weight is mostly for your cues rather than for strength.

The lead rope can be cotton or nylon or any material as long as it has good weight.  It should be at least 10 feet in length if not more.  Fourteen foot leads are very useful for groundwork as they allow you to have a “tail” available for cue to your horse and circling.  The end should ideally have a ‘popper’ which is not to torture the horse but is to enhance cues.  Thing of it as the end of a horse’s tail for swishing at them so that they understand when to move as needed.

The snap should be heavy, preferably brass, for both strength and feel.  You can test if your snap is true brass or just brass coated by using a magnet.  Brass is magnetic; tin is not.

Riding Helmet

OK you western riders – don’t let me catch your eyes glazing over here.  This item is as important as any other item on my list and just as pertinent for you as it is for English riders.  This helmet is also not limited to riding work! Surprised?  Consider working with a horse that you suddenly find is scared, rearing, and trying to get away.  Also consider times when you might find you have lots your balance and are looking at horse feet.  It happens to the best of us.

Make a statement:  as a horse person, there will often be younger horse people watching you.  Make the right statement about responsibility by using a properly graded riding helmet while riding and while working problem horses on the ground.  Their heads are just as precious and valued as your own, note.

Riding helmets today are much more affordable and smaller in profile than they used to be.  Besides, everyone is wearing them these days so you will not stand out as a “mushroom head” – I promise.  That being said, you WILL stand out if you have a mass of bandages around your skull or are the center of a funeral. I hate to be so bold, but I have known a very experienced horse woman who died to a skull fracture; don’t let me know two.

The Knife

This is another life-saver.  The knife in the barn is one of the most often overlooked items that is not only incredibly handy but very important in terms of safety. After all, we tie our horses with rope, and we all know what messes horses can get into with the least effort!

What type of knife to choose for your stable: if you’re only going to choose one  knife, choose one that has the following characteristics:

  • Folds up.
  • Has at least one jagged section of blade for cutting ropes and leather.
  • Has at least one smooth section of blade for cutting other items.
  • Can be placed in your pocket, a saddlebag, and generally carried around.

Not only is a knife useful for feed bags, hay strings, and other items, it can be a lifesaver if a horse is tangled in a rope, setting back and in danger of flipping, or in other dangerous situations.  You never know when you might also find yourself caught, so be sure to keep your knife within reach on trail rides and at other times.

You can find horse-appropriate knives available  through horse catalogs or at most feed stores.  Sport stores often have knives called “roper knives” that are very appropriate for stable usage.  In all cases, when you really need a knife you will certainly be glad to have one within reach.

These are just a few of my favorite items.  I will be sharing more with you over the weeks.  As the holidays are nearing, consider spoiling yourself by purchasing some of these items on sale through either your favorite clinician, or saving money through online catalogs offering discounts on shipping and costs:  that way you can buy MORE goodies for your safety and horse enjoyment.

Enjoy!

Avoiding and Correcting Bad Behavior in the Horse – Naturally and Effectively

The spirit, strength, and might of horses are what attract so many; these traits are admirable and awesome to behold.  Sometimes, however, these same traits make the horses we love not so likeable – and not so safe when being handled on the ground.  Why do these traits come out, and how should they be handled when they do?

 

Why do our horses get horsey with us?

 

By nature, horses are prey animals.  This means they’re usually looking out for their own safety, looking for predators, and ready to flee without notice; however, within their own herd (to which we – by proxy – belong) horses are less shy.  Horse herds have a social order and most horses occasionally will test to see if they have possibly moved up the ranks.

 

Do not make the mistake of taking these times of boundary testing personally.  Horses will try and test you and these boundaries to see if they can rise in the proverbial pecking order.  Sometimes horses innocently forget that the human is supposed to be the top of the list.  When any of these situations occur, they usually show up as a lack of respect – either passive, or active.

 

Horses show lack of respect through various actions.

 

Some signs of lack of respect are as follows:

  • Walking ahead while being lead.
  • Crowding with the shoulder, head, or neck.
  • Turning the rump to the owner in the stall or pen.
  • Nipping, biting, striking, kicking, or threatening any of these actions.
  • Pinning the ears back towards the human.
  • Pulling on the rope – either backwards or forwards.
  • Tossing their head.
  • Stepping on your feet.
  • Rubbing their head against you or pushing with their head or body.

 

Some of these actions are relatively harmless.  Others can be quite dangerous and should be remedied immediately.  In all cases, these actions are symptoms of an attitude that can go from bad to worse if the horse is not shown immediately that while we respect them, we also demand respect.   In addition to making a point to learn *why* these actions are occurring, horse handlers can demand respect through body language and consistency to shape their horse’s behavior into something safe and enjoyable.

 

 

Demanding respect kindly leads to longer, better relationships with the horse.

 

Demanding respect no longer means bullying, beating, or overwhelming the horse.  Let’s face it – these beautiful creatures vastly outweigh us; believing that we can muscle them around is wrong and dangerous!

 

A horse that is muscled-around does not respect their owner; they fear them.  When the fear is outweighed by another fear, the horse will leave the owner high and dry for their own safety.  Instead, horse owners should strive to build a partnership and leadership role for the horse so that when things get tough they look to the handler for the decision making.

 

Horses are looking for leaders – be that leader!

 

By their very nature, horses are looking for leaders; they function best in a society where there is a clear leader who gives consistent and clear signals and an expectation of respect.  In the herd, this role is filled by the alpha-mare or another alpha-horse who gives signals by arching and lowering her neck, pinning her ears, gritting her teeth, even taking snaps and occasional kicks at the most disrespectful of her herd.

 

In the stable, horses need to see us as the alpha horse.  Note:  at no point was it said that alpha-mares constantly kick, bite, and harass their herd members.  They do not behave that way, nor should we.  Instead, as alpha horses, handlers should use a consistent body language that never waivers to show kind but serious leadership.

 

You can and should be the alpha-mare in your relationship with your horse.

 

You can show your position as the alpha-horse through body language which is easily understood and readily interpreted by the horse.  In a pasture, if there is a pan of feed, all the horses will gravitate towards it; however, if you watch carefully, you will notice that usually at least one horse will get closest to that pan and eat.  All other horses stand by, warily waiting their turn.

 

The one horse, the alpha horse, tells the others that they have to wait by pinning her ears, making rushes at the other horses, tensing her body as if to kick, and giving “the stink eye” to the other horses.

 

Being the alpha-mare consists of easy body motions.

 

Some ways you can show your horse that you are the alpha-mare of the relationship, deserving respect, are as follows:

 

  • Bending over at the waist and tensing the upper body.
  • Placing an arm up in front of your body and walking towards the horse.
  • Throwing the arms out while bending forwards, displaying a great deal of body energy towards the horse.
  • Swishing the end of a long lead rope (preferably with a popper) towards the horse – either in front or behind as a tail would move.
  • Standing straight up, looking directly at the area of the horse that we want to move, without any relaxation in our bodies.
  • Walking with a great deal of energy toward the horse, or even lunging towards them.
  • Showing the horse clearly in which direction we wish them to move – either with body language, or a combination of body language and using our leading-arm to point/direct them in the right direction.

 

These actions not only show intent but also serve to help move the horse as needed if this energy is directed to a certain portion of the body (discussed below).

 

On the other hand, when we want to show the horse that we are relaxed and have no problems with their behavior, we let the pressure off with the following body motions:

 

  • Standing with our backs turned towards the horse, relaxed.
  • Standing with one leg relaxed and bent, as they would do a back leg when resting.
  • Letting out all breath in a sigh and slumping the shoulders.
  • Taking our eyes off of the horse and instead onto something in the distance.
  • Letting our arms rest by our sides or behind our bodies.
  • Walking away.

 

These actions not only show the horse that the pressure is off, but can help stop motion that was caused by pressure-creating movements.

 

Know when to put the pressure on – and when to remove it.

Knowing when to put on the pressure (and where), and when to release it is key in teaching your horse to be respectful and enjoy it.  In the herd, an alpha horse will put the pressure on to move the horse’s feet (and thus the body) from one spot to another – generally away from them.  As humans, we direct our energy towards certain points on the body to do the same.

 

Important points of pressure for the horse create movement.

 

To move the body forward or the hindquarters away from us, we direct whatever energy (eyes, movement, or rope) to the hindquarters. Think of there being a spot directly in the center of the side of the horse’s haunches as a target for your energy.

 

To move the horse away from us laterally, to the side, or forwards, direct energy towards the very center of the horse.

 

To move the forequarters away from you and possibly move the horse forward, direct energy towards the shoulder.

 

To move the horse backwards or away from you without moving forwards, or turn the horse around, direct your energy (but never the rope) towards the center of the jaw.

 

 

Releasing pressure at the right moment makes all the difference.

 

When the horse makes even the slightest motion to comply with your request, switch immediately to “release” mode: relax your body, turn away, or whatever motion is appropriate.  Be sure to do this immediately as time is important.

 

 

Dangerous actions; know how to recognize the unforgivable actions.

 

Dangerous actions include:

 

  • Biting
  • Striking with the front legs
  • Pawing with the front legs
  • Rearing
  • Nipping
  • Threatening to kick
  • Kicking
  • Bucking “at” you.

 

 

Apply the “Three Second Rule” to correct unforgivable actions.

 

When a horse performs any of the dangerous and unforgivable actions, immediately and consistently use John Lyon’s “Three Second Rule”:  during the 3-seconds following the dangerous action, you use your energy and rope to “kill” the horse (or make him think you are going to do so).

 

Using the Three Second Rule does not give us license to physically damage the horse, but it does mean that you can and should your popper on your rope to hit the horse (as a horse would kick him back if he dared to make a dangerous move towards them), and definitely to make the horse MOVE and move a lot.

 

Important:  never, EVER use a rope at or around the horse’s face.  Not only will you create a head-shy horse, but you risk blinding them.  This is the human’s unforgivable action – so never do it, please.

 

 

Use movement to avoid dangerous actions.

 

Remember:  a horse whose feet are moving is less likely to be able to do any of the dangerous actions.  A horse has to stop to rear, has to stop to kick you, has to stop to nip, and gets further from you when moving making them less likely to hit you with a bucking kick towards you.

 

If you have a horse acting dangerously and you can see a dangerous action is about to occur, make the horse move in a way that will not allow them to act dangerously.  If the horse is going to rear, make them move forward by putting pressure on their hindquarters.  If the horse is going to bite, make them back away from you or do anything to redirect their attention and energy.

 

It is always BEST to redirect the action before it occurs rather than correcting it once it has, if possible.

 

 

Horses are lazy by nature; use that laziness to end their bad habits.

 

Horses are lazy by nature; if a horse finds they have to move when they do things that are dangerous, and move every single time, they’ll be a lot less inclined to bother.

 

Use every ounce of your angry-alpha-horse motion towards a horse when they dare to act dangerously towards you.  If you were truly a horse, this is exactly how you would handle the situation.  This is the type of “language” that horses understand immediately without having to have it translated for them!

 

 

Using your Alpha-Language for less serious situations is very effective.

 

Because horses understand the alpha-horse language by instinct, you can use it to your advantage for less-serious issues such as pushing, crowding, pulling, etc.

 

 

Understand the personal space bubble for horses and humans.

 

Humans have a bubble of personal space that we would prefer not be invaded by our 1000+ plus equine friends.  A good rule of thumb is the length of your own arm equals your reasonable personal space.  This distance around you is your personal space and should be respected by your horse.  The horse should walk beside your shoulder or a little behind at all times at approximately an arm’s length from you.

 

Horses also have a personal space which we would do well to respect.  This means that you should not lead the horse by gripping directly beneath their chin, but give *them* space as well with the lead rope and your body.  Horses can be claustrophobic.  Crowding their space makes them more antsy and uncomfortable.

 

Two common issues and how to correct them:

 

Crowding:

If you lead a horse that likes to crowd you, use the tail of your rope in your left hand and swish it behind you to lightly pop the horse on its side.  This will cause the horse to move away from you.  Don’t worry about turning around to look at the horse; this stops forwards motion, and besides – as alpha horse you don’t have to.  Just swish.

 

If you were a horse, you would swish your tail in annoyance and it would pop the horse too close to your rear.  Since we’re born without tails, use the rope.  If you have ever been swished by a horse tail, you know it has a light and startling sting without being painful or long-lasting or aggressive.  Mimic that with your rope.  The moment the horse is outside of your space, immediately resume what you were doing as if nothing happened.  This releases the pressure and rewards them.

 

Pushing ahead of the leader:

If you have a horse that is to forward, this is the time to turn around and direct your energy towards the front of the horse to get them to back away from you and respect your space.  Most times this simply means using your body language, wiggling the rope, or swishing your rope-tail towards their front.  As soon as the horse is out of your space, release all tension and resume what you were doing by turning away from them and carrying on.

 

Let your horse make mistakes; correct them after, not before, they happen.

As humans, we learn (or at least we should learn) from our mistakes.  If we are not allowed to make mistakes, we won’t learn or grow much.  Horses are the same. Many people make the mistake of trying to overcorrect a horse by keeping an action from happening.

 

As an example, if a person has a horse that walks up on them and won’t stop, too often the person will grip the lead rope directly beneath the chin and keep tension on the halter and rope to prevent the action.  As a result, the horse feels pressured and often will resort to tossing their head, yanking the halter trying to get slack on the lead rope, or other annoying actions.  This usually leads to more gripping, and the cycle worsens.

 

If instead we allow the horse to do what they will usually do and then kindly, confidently, and swiftly correct the action the horse will have an opportunity to learn how to behave correctly in the first place.  Just as with children, sometimes you have to let the horses make their mistakes so that they learn the consequences and how to avoid those actions.

 

Make the wrong thing hard, the right thing easy.

 

Another key to allowing a horse to learn how to behave correctly is by making the right actions easy and the wrong actions troublesome.  For example, a horse that walks correctly on the lead rope without crowding will not feel the gripping hand under their chin, will not feel the sting of the swish of a rope-tail, and generally be left alone.  A horse that does crowd should always find that they feel that swish and are often made to do more, such as walking away from the owner.

 

Given an option, horses will choose the proverbial path of least resistance.  In other words, they will choose whatever option means the least work and least pressure for them.  Walking nicely on a lead leads to no pressure and less work.  Crowding leads to more pressure and more work.  Biting leads to lots of pressure, possibly pain, and movement.  Not biting leads to no pressure, no pain, no work – a simple and obvious choice to a horse!

 

Consistency is a key concept.

 

Horses long for consistency; as prey animals, they like things to be safe, consistent, and predictable. This means that once you set up a behavior rule, you must always reinforce that rule.  Slacking on reinforcing rules means your horse will not respect you as a leader.  In their minds, they will think “well the last time I nipped him just a little, I didn’t get punished – so this time I’m going to try it a little harder.”  Be fair to your horses and keep things constant with them; they will flourish in this environment and have confidence in your leadership.

 

In between bad behaviors – be your horse’s friend.

 

Alpha-mares aren’t always bossy and cranky; most of the time they are sought after by the other horses because they offer safety.  After all – horses know what to expect from an alpha mare.   Most of the time, the alpha mare has the respect she needs to be able to relax.  You should, too.  Be sure to give your horses rubs on the forehead or shoulder to show them that you are a kind leader, their friend if still their leader. They will appreciate you all the more for it.

 

That being said, remember that when they cross the imaginary line from friend to pushing things a bit, to kindly remind them exactly where the line is drawn.  They’ll love you for your consistency and look to you, instead of away from you, in times of perceived danger.

 

 

Shape your horse’s behavior – you can do this!

 

With just a little understanding of the nature of the horse, reinforcement of easily understood rules, and easy body motions, any horse can be a well-behaved, enjoyable, and happy partner.  Rather than breaking their tremendous spirit, we can shape that energy and spirit into a safe and long-lasting relationship to be treasured.

Hello friends!

Hello, and welcome to my HoovesAndFeathers blog spot!  Within this blog, I hope to share some of my experiences with hooved and feathered creatures, some information I’ve gleaned along the way, and hear some of your experiences and thoughts as well.